Ten episodes into its third season, The Handmaid’s Tale seems to be going round in circles, rather than expanding on its most interesting ideas and exploiting the talents of its stellar cast. By Kath Kenny.
Season three of The Handmaid’s Tale
In Harvard Yard, the Boston playwright Amy Merrill points out the Widener Library. I recall a scene from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which the citizens of the fictional theocracy of Gilead are assembled outside the library to watch three women hang. Though the setting is never explicitly named, Atwood’s story takes place in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts – the site of Harvard University. In the book, Moira, best friend to protagonist June, heads down “Mass. Ave” when she escapes the Red Centre, looking for the “[Harvard] Yard or the Square”. June’s mother, meanwhile, lives in Boston, “across the river”.
“Harvard was founded because Puritan men were afraid of Anne Hutchinson, a popular feminist preacher,” Merrill tells me. Hutchinson, I later read, caused such a schism that it confirmed the need for a new college to educate the next generation of all-male clergy. She was tried for heresy and expelled from the colony in 1638, condemned “as being a woman not fit for our society”. Exiled to Rhode Island, beaten down by her trial and imprisonment, Hutchinson suffered a miscarriage. Back in Boston, Puritan ministers relished her loss, deeming it an act of God.
Later that century, Harvard College’s long-time president, Increase Mather, stoked public fear about witchcraft in the lead-up to the Salem witch trials. Women weren’t admitted to Harvard Law School until 1950, and wouldn’t enter the university’s Lamont Library until 1967.
This small cribbed history reminds us that it’s not Atwood’s Gilead that is the aberration – instead it’s the last half-century or so of progress for women. The Puritans prized education but brutally and publicly punished dissenters, and Atwood was interested in how cruelly autocratic forces could emerge within such societies. She has often said Gilead draws from real-world examples. In reading the book, or seeing how easily its Hulu TV adaptation gives rise to contemporary comparison, you can’t help thinking that in 1985 she read the world’s palm and saw the future.
In Atwood’s Gilead, environmental catastrophe is accompanied by rising religious fundamentalism. All-male legislators control women’s fertility. In our 2019 world, powerful men push through strict anti-abortion laws across America’s south.
In Australia, a Pentecostal prime minister responds to drought with rain prayers. Wealthy families keep domestic workers in slave-like conditions. When Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) cites family unity in a televised press conference and stands by her husband, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), who cut off her finger for reading, we see echoes of a recent high-profile domestic violence case.
The Hulu series’ vision of Gilead has often felt surplus to requirements. If you’re still watching, three seasons in, I’d wager it’s for the primal pull of story. Will the Red Riding Hoods escape the wolves? Will the stolen children follow the breadcrumbs back to their parents? Will June (Elisabeth Moss) be reunited with her family? As the third season ends, none of these questions seems close to being answered. And these failures of plot are bound up with failures of theme: both plot and theme are stuck in repetitive cycles.
Gilead is a world where handmaids are part cows, part nuns; allowed sex, but only for procreation, not pleasure. Aunts, made quasi-men with their phallic electric prods, enforce order. Women are nature to men’s culture. Cinematically, too, female characters are linked to the basic elements of water, earth and fire. There is fire in the Marthas’ kitchens and in hearths when handmaids give birth; Serena starts a fire that burns her house down. One of the handmaids hovers at the river’s edge, threatening to jump with her baby; Emily (Alexis Bledel) crosses a river with June’s baby Nichole; Serena wades fully clothed into a lake, either to drown herself or make her way back to Nichole. The infertile Serena potters in her glasshouse, coaxing flowers to bloom artificially while inside she tries to impregnate Offred with her child. June shovels dirt to bury a murdered Martha. It’s women as destruction and reproduction.
Each episode is sprinkled with beautifully composed images of handmaids filmed from above, and this bird’s-eye view (“under his eye”) accentuates their powerlessness. This season’s first episode had a heart-stopping scene of handmaids climbing a staircase that became an almond-shaped eye when filmed from above. In another episode, the god’s-eye camera shows handmaids circling a woman who has just birthed a stillborn child. Together they become a red, pulsing heart-shape, standing in for the child’s missing heartbeat. These beautiful surfaces and arresting symbols oscillate between genius and cloying. Like the mute handmaids June encounters in Washington, their mouths stapled shut, it’s as though the show has something it wants to say that we just can’t hear. But showrunner Bruce Miller doesn’t have the handmaids’ grisly excuse.
This season began promising so much. “There’s a fuck-ton of evil to fear … I’m sorry, baby girl, Mom’s got work,” says June, having handed newborn Nichole to an escaping Emily. Ten episodes in, we’re still waiting for that work. There have been teasing glimpses. When Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) gave June the chance to save five women from being sent to colonies, June chose women who would make likely rebels in the Marthas’ underground resistance. But what’s become of this group? Instead, we’ve been given scene after scene of June clenching her fists and giving other characters a lot of scorching side-eye. Although Moss delivers this so excellently, we’re reminded of how Gilead, where handmaids are forced into head-bowed compliance, regularly leaves June with so little to do.
June’s lover Nick (Max Minghella) labelled her insane for not leaving Gilead. This whole season has been devoted to proving his words true. June’s insanity – her doing the same thing over and over again – is a rational response to Gilead’s madness, but it’s painful to watch. And in terms of narrative it’s not taking us anywhere particularly interesting. It’s as though she is acting out a song featured in a recent episode, Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to be Kind”. “I want to know why / I pick myself up off the ground / To have you knock me back down, again and again.” Viewers could ask the same question. All we’ve seen June achieve is a trail of dead bodies.
You can’t ignore how many of those bodies have been black: the driver June coaxed into helping her escape last season; the Martha whom June coaxed into helping her find her daughter; and now Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop), June’s pious walking partner. When June realises Ofmatthew has been spying on her and retaliates, Ofmatthew’s sudden disintegration ends in a bloody scene, which both draws on violent myths about black women and looks as though it belongs in a Tarantino movie. Brain-dead and on life support, Ofmatthew’s body becomes a cipher over whom June, forced to keep vigil in her hospital room, works through her homicidal issues.
Commander Lawrence earlier lectured June: “Women like you are like children: asking for too much, taking whatever you want, damn the consequences.” In its layering of cruelty upon cruelty, the show appears to be shrugging and tacitly agreeing with him.
What makes this so disappointing is that at times The Handmaid’s Tale seemed to want to say something nuanced about race, women’s bodies and motherhood. A flashback scene last season showed Moira (Samira Wiley), crippled by student debts pre-Gilead, renting her womb to a middle-class white couple. It was a deliberate blurring of the distinction between our world and Gilead, a refusal to let us simply project our ethical hand-wringing about surrogacy onto an evil theocracy. Yet this season, The Handmaid’s Tale seems to have little interesting to say. Meanwhile, a show such as The Good Fight is dealing with questions of race, surrogacy, sexual abuse, Trump-era politics and foreboding environmental signs in much more fascinating ways – and The Good Fight’s subplot of a female-led underground resistance group has been much more compelling.
At Harvard, I walked out of the Widener Library into a sea of student protesters. Led by a 17-year-old Colombian-American student, Jamie Margolin, they were calling on the university to divest from fossil fuels. Young women know their bodies, their lives, are on the line because of the climate emergency. In the street surrounding this privileged institution, the homelessness crisis is unavoidable. In Harvard’s cafes, professors can be overheard muttering about “the women” in their department. There is plenty of material in this boiling mix of ressentiment, inequality and injustice.
In its third season, The Handmaid’s Tale has failed to give us the pleasure of a detailed world-building by lifting the veil on Gilead’s deeper workings. Nor has it offered June any way out of her horror. And I can’t help but wonder whether we would have been better served by a prequel, a cautionary tale of how Gilead came into being in the first place.
VISUAL ART Bauhaus Now!
Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne, until October 20
OPERA Oscar and Lucinda
Carriageworks, Sydney, until August 3
DESIGN Robin Boyd: Design Legend
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, August 3—October 27
SCULPTURE Honor Freeman: Ghost Objects
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until September 29
MULTIMEDIA Agatha Gothe-Snape and Wrong Solo: Certain Situations
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, until August 31
CLASSICAL Mozart Clarinet Concerto
Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, August 2
Albert Hall, Launceston, August 3
VISUAL ART Lily Mae Martin: Elucidate
Scott Livesey Galleries, Sydney, until August 17
Kings Cross Theatre, Sydney, August 4-24
The Butterfly Club, Melbourne, August 1-3
Ulverstone Arena, Tasmania, August 1-3
MUSICAL Maria, Marlene and Me
Kidogo Arthouse, Fremantle, July 28
VISUAL ART Body Politics: Contemporary Works from the Collection
Bendigo Art Gallery, until July 29
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 27, 2019 as "Handmaid’s tailspin".
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